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Information Literacy: 08. What are Databases?

Strategies used to incorporate research skills for the College of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School of Management, the Pacific Northwest College of Arts, and the School of Computing and Informations Sciences.

What is a library database? (video)

Learn what sort of information can be found through library databases and when to use them for research

(CSU video, length 1:52 minutes)


Defining Databases and Their Uses

Databases are organized collections of related information or data. The collections usually cover a specific field of study such as history, biology, or music. Most online library databases consist of written works published in journals, magazines, or newspapers but others consist of data, images or specialized information such as government documents.

Browse through our databases by document type or by academic unit.

You should use a library database if you are:

  • Searching for articles in a magazine, newspaper, or scholarly journal.
  • Conducting scholarly research for an assignment.
  • Looking for information on a specific topic.
  • Locating peer reviewed or professionally edited work.

Most materials in library databases have either gone through the peer review process or reviewed by a professional editor. Visit our peer review guide to learn more. However, information and images on the free web (Internet) can be posted by anyone since there is no mandatory screening process. Some materials on the free web may have been reviewed by an editor, but most never have been.

Also, it can be difficult to find what you need on the Internet with millions of results. Library databases are tailored towards specific audiences, often deal with specific subjects such as agriculture or musical recordings, and collects related materials all in one location. This allows for more efficient searching.

On the free web, you can find current information from ranging from celebrity gossip to satire and opinion. But when it comes to trusted factual sources, historical information is often not free. Databases such JSTOR may contain both older and current information; publications may go back to the first issue of journal.

Most scholarly information is not freely accessible. The free web usually provides only brief citation info about underlying documents such as author’s name, publication date, and title of publication. While the free web typically limits access to information through paywalls, library database often contain the full text of materials.

Libraries pay annual subscriptions to access content through databases yielding more than just citations. Many library databases include the full text of an item; you can view and download entire articles, books, statistical tables, or images. They also check for alternative ways to access an item such as other library databases. As an added bonus, library databases often offer to get an item through interlibrary loan if it is not available immediately available.

For many people, searching the Internet is the first step for conducting any research. But the Internet can quickly overwhelm you with a flood of information. And there is no screening for reliability.

Tailored to specific subjects or audiences. Research is much easier & it saves time.
Peer-reviewed or reviewed by professional editors. High quality information that is more reliable.
Prepaid by the library via subscriptions. No need for out of pocket payments.
Accessible both on- and off-campus. 24/7 access from any Internet connection.
Primarily collections of articles & reports. They usually indicate the literature types.
Often specialized. May include newspapers, magazines or book chapters.
Citation are usually accompanied with abstracts. Offers short summary of underlying document.
Linked to the library's catalog for further access. Quickly check if the library has access or submit Inter Library Loan request if we do not have it.

Most library databases are for a specific audience that dictates the type of material in them. Academic Search Complete, for example, covers scholarly journals on academic topics and undergraduate students are the target audience. GreenFile, on the other hand, is aimed at anyone from high school through doctoral degrees but only focuses on environmental concerns.

Willamette University

Willamette University Libraries

Mark O. Hatfield Library
900 State Street.
Salem Oregon 97301
Pacific Northwest College of Art Library
511 NW Broadway.
Portland Oregon 97209